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Epilogue: Back in the U.S.

Sunrise at Sofia Airport...

Sunrise at Sofia Airport…

It’s been some time since my last post; I left Bulgaria in August to return to my hometown in Kentucky. I miss Sofia terribly, it was a place I called home and loved from day one. While I may never be a Bulgarian, I do consider myself a Sofian. The city is a strange mix of elegant and rusty, of nostalgia and hope for the future, of Europe and the Orient, of capitalism and communism. Visitors never seem to know what to expect out of Sofia, but the city is a home to many people who are just trying to live their day to day lives. Someone recently asked me what I miss the most, and I immediately said “the friends who I made that I don’t get a chance to see on a daily basis.” A close second would be the public transit.

DIGITAL CAMERAI left Sofia on August 26th, just over a month after the Burgas bus bombing. I was surprised that morning when I arrived at the airport and my friend Mr. P who had come to bid me farewell could not enter the airport. Only ticketed passengers could enter the building. I had this cinematic scene in my mind of waving goodbye as I ran to catch my flight, however in true Bulgarian fashion I was shuffled inside and made to wait in a very slow-moving anti-climactic line, all the while needing to use the toilet.

 

The Megabus somewhere in Indiana...

The Megabus somewhere in Indiana…

A week earlier I had tried to turn in my identity card, however the clerk at the immigration office told me that I would have problems exiting the country if I didn’t take it with me. I was certain she meant re-enter the country – as a U.S. Passport holder, no one has ever given me gruff for exiting anywhere. She told me I might be able to surrender my card at the border police, but even then I was skeptical. Bulgarian law states that you Bulgarian identity card is the property of the government and loss is subject to a large fine. As I did not know  when I would be returning, I would need to surrender my card so that I wouldn’t have any problems if I chose to return one day (summer 2013 I’m hoping :)). Unsurprisingly, the border police did not want my card, and they suggested mailing it to the Bulgarian embassy in D.C. If you’re visiting Bulgaria, this is a good example of the frustrations of bureaucracy.

This small Bulgarian Grocery in Chicago...has closed...

This small Bulgarian Grocery in Chicago…has closed…

We’ll see how my identity card drama will unfold…

If traveling from a smaller city in the U.S., I find transatlantic flights are cheaper if you first fly to either New York or Chicago on a separate ticket. By doing this coming into the U.S., I saved $700.00. I arrived in Chicago via Amsterdam in the evening and my friend Ms. T picked me up at the airport. Of all the American cities, Chicago and New York have killer public transit systems, whereas in Kentucky it is virtually impossible to leave the airport not in a car.

I stayed in Chicago for a few days and eventually took the Megabus to Louisville for $14. Megabus is a new phenomenon in the middle of America, starting out in the coastal cities, the company has expanded to include a Chicago-Indianapolis-Louisville-Nashville line, which was great since Louisville is only 6 hours from Chicago and there were no baggage fees. The company works like this: the first ticket sold is one dollar, the second is two dollars, the third is three dollars, and etc. If you’re planning ahead, you can get tickets for less than the cost of driving.

The bus was comfortable and had free wifi, which was a step above the Bulgarian buses I’ve been used to riding. It took about 6 1/2 hours for the bus to get to Louisville, and it dropped us off downtown on the backside of the Louisville Armory.

The last time I had a car...

The last time I had a car…

Living in Louisville, Kentucky makes me pine for Sofia’s public transit. Although Louisville has more than a million people, it took me on average 2 hours to get anywhere I needed to go from where my parents live. In October, I broke down and bought a car, which has made life enjoyable.

As the year is coming to a close, I wanted to take the time to say goodbye to all of my loyal readers and friends in Bulgaria. Although I did not reach my goal of writing about every line of public transit in Sofia, I did cover a lot of the more interesting ones that as a visitor, you might want to use. I want to thank you for your interest in my blog, and as always, if you have any additional questions or comments, feel free to email me at patrick.erdley@otherplacespublishing.com.

Have a Merry Christmas!

-Patrick

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“All About Buses” – A Trip to the Erma River Gorge, Sofia to Grad Trun

The bus to Trun.

The great thing about Sofia is that the quiet of wilderness is never more than just an hour away. Like I have

Grapefruit-Mint Beer? Why even waste the water…for a better beer selection, visit Halbite On Neofit Rilski Street near Han Krum and 6th of September. They have the largest selection of beers I’ve seen of anyplace in Sofia.

been saying, Bulgaria actually has a very efficient and functional public transit network that (in contrast to the bemoaning of some Bulgarians) manages to reach the most tucked away corners of the country. The key is understanding how buses are organized. Buses leaving Sofia’s Central Bus Station are usually going to larger towns and regional administrative seats. Sometimes they include resort towns like Rila, Koprivshtitsa, and Belogradchik. Sofia also has several other smaller bus stations (like Avtogara Zapad in Ovcha Kupel at the corner of Tsar Boris III and Ovcha Kupel Blvd., Avtogara Poduyane/Iztok on Todorini Kukli Street in Hadji Dimiter, Avtogara Sever located next to the Sever Train Station in Lev Tolstoy, and Avtogara Yugunder the Durvenitsa Overpass near the Jolio Curie Metrostation) that serve nearby towns and sometimes larger villages in that direction; Zapad serves towns and villages in the southwest, Pouyane serves those in the north, and Yug to those in the east. Bulgaria is divided up into 28 oblasts (provinces) that all have a provincial capital. The provinces luckily are named after these capitals (for example Blagoevgrad is the capital of the Blagoevgrad province). There are buses from Sofia going to every single oblast. Within the oblasts, they are further divided into obshtinas (municipalities) of which there are 231 in the entire country (in 2009, some municipalities with large population losses were consolidated into other municipalities). If you need to get to a municipality, there will be a bus from the

The bus schedule for Avtogara Zapad, as of August 22nd, 2012.

provincial capital. For example, I traveled to Trun which is a municipality in the Pernik Oblast, in southwestern Bulgaria. Luckily, there are several Sofia-Trun buses, albeit leaving from Avtogara Zapad, but they all pass through Pernik, which has additional buses going to Trun. Almost all municipalities will have a bus station, and its from these municipal bus station that you can reach the smallest villages, within the boundaries of the municipality. Most villages have at least one round-trip bus a day.

Most buses going to smaller places will also be smaller – microbuses seating up to 25 people and

The herb demonstration room in Dr. Dimitrova’s garden.

referred to as marshrutka. Within Sofia, there is a large network of marshrutkas, which charge 1.50 lev a ride and have fixed routes. Unlike buses, which only stop at marked places, marshrutkas will pick you up and let you off anywhere in their fixed route. This is one of the advantages, as is the fact that they are faster and more nimble than city buses, crossing the city in a half hour where some buses take an hour. Most buses going to smaller villages are also marshrutka, which is nice because they are also maneuver more easily on winding country roads than bulky buses, often flying like a bat out of hell.

Dr. Dimitrova.

If you wish, read along and underline one of the choices to illustarte your own Balkan Marshrutka Adventure:

If you choose to travel by marshrutka in Bulgaria, it’s sure to be a memorable experience. Your driver will probably have a (balkanstache / beer belly / both a balkanstache and a beer belly), and continuously (smoke cigarettes / drink espresso / curse at other motorists). The radio will be playing (Savage Garden / something with a warbling clarinet / Deep Purple) so loud that you will need to scream to the person next to you. The person next to you will smell like (powdery perfume / underarms / sheep). The marshrutka itself is usually a late model (Mercedes-Benz / Peugeot / Fiat) packed to the brim. Passengers will include (a  nakhalna woman / an old baba widow dressed in black / a woman with a thicker moustache than the driver), a stinky farmer with a bag full of (conserves / rakia / lamb meat), a beautiful tall young woman getting off the marshrutka in the most remote place, a shirtless guy with a gold chain, a (drunk person / crying baby), and a confused foreigner. You will eventually take the marshrutka to (your grandmother’s village / an old hizha / the monastery), where by the

Part of the Trun Ecotrail uses this road, approaching the Erma River Gorge.

time you get there, you will have (been offered a hunk of feta cheese / been conned out of your seat by an old lady / thrown up from the

From up above.

ride). In any sense, there’s no better way to get to know Bulgarians or Bulgarian culture.

On this day, my friend Mr. P and I decided to visit the Erma River Gorge, a rarely-visited but beautiful place near the town of Trun, on the Serbian border, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sofia. The river isn’t so big – it begins in Serbia, enters Bulgaria, cuts through the mountains near Trun in a dramatically narrow gorge, and enters Serbia again to meet up with the Nishava River.

We chose Trun because neither I nor Mr. P had ever been, and Mr. P was one stamp away from receiving his bronze pin from the Bulgarian Tourist Union for having visited 25 of the 100 National Tourist Sites. The gorge would be site #25 for him. We boarded the 8:00 bus from the Avtogara Zapad, which we almost didn’t make because the sign on the bus didn’t list Trun as a stop. Luckily Mr. P asked an old lady, and she verified that this bus, indeed, went to Trun. When in Bulgaria, you’re going to meet a lot of nakhalni people. It’s hard to translate nakhalna directly into English, but it means a combination of nosy, bossy, and morally superior. When a strange woman in a store is asking you 100 questions about your love life and how much money you make and at the same time scolding you for the items in your grocery cart, she is being nakhalna. On this certain marshrutka ride, the token nakhalnawoman was sitting in the front seat of the bus, blocking our entry. “There’s no more room!” she said. “Nonsense!” I said, fighting back. “Why isn’t Trun listed on the sign on the bus?” I

Mr. P and a tunnel.

yelled at her. “Let us in and we’ll stand.” The driver, who had a moustache and a beer belly, screamed over

By the swimming hole. The water is clean, but not drinkable. Unlike high altitude streams, shepherds bring their animals to drink in the parts up river, risking a bacterial infection from their droppings. But swimming is perfectly fine.

the clarinet music that we would probably “have to stand until Pernik,” at which there would be another bus with empty seats. The nakhalna women got out and said “hold on, hold on, I have to move so you can get in…” and proceeded to sigh so loudly, it was if someone had let all the air out of the Goodyear Blimp. I doubt that she actually worked for the bus company, yet apparently she was the person I needed to negotiate with.

The Sofia-Trun marshrutka is run by a company out of Trun named Rumasiya-2005 (many companies in Bulgaria are named after the owner’s wife/girlfriend and the year in which it was started). It was a brand new Volkswagen passenger van that had seats for 22, but was carrying 30. Once we got to Pernik, however, we were able to switch to another bus going to Trun owned by the same company.

We arrived in Trun a few minutes before 10:00, a total of two hours of travel time. This includes a 20 minute break in Pernik and constant stopping and picking up people, so if you have a car, Trun is probably about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Sofia. Once in Trun, it’s a three kilometer walk to the gorge from the bus station. We had planned to walk this, however we met a nice baba on the marshrutka that told us she lived in the gorge and grew herbs for sale. She said that once we arrived that there would be a bus to

Inside the gorge.

take us into the gorge, of which there was. There are two villages in that direction from Trun: Lomnitsa and Petachintsi, though when I asked the baba at what time the bus from Trun traveled, she told me the times for Sofia. “No, I mean this bus that we’re on…” but she just looked ahead and said “oh, I don’t know.” We asked the driver too, but he also muttered an “I don’t know,” which either means that these people were idiots or that they just couldn’t understand what I was asking (eventually when I got back to the Trun bus station, I asked the attendant, and she told me that the Lomnitsa buses leave at 7:45 in the morning and 16:00 after lunch, neither of which were times for the bus we were on – I guess the 10:20 bus is a Petachintsi bus). We exited the gorge bus at a small bridge next to three houses.

The baba let us in her yard, and told us that she would like to give us a demonstration about herbology in

These choco-chip muesli cookies are the best. So were the sandwiches and the arugula.

her demonstration room. I find that Bulgaria has a large collection of colorful pensioners, and I’m always interested in the things that they have to say, so I agreed. She then promptly told Mr. P that she needed to “feed her goat,” and that he needed to “…come break some branches off of a tree, because he was tall.” For the next thirty minutes we were conned into some yard work, and I stepped in a nettles bush, which isn’t pleasant.

Finally, we sat down in the demonstration room and baba introduced herself as a Dr. Evginiya Dimitrova, although her doctorate was in economic theory, not botany. She showed us some teas that she had made from thyme, basil, lemongrass, and others, touting the affects and healing properties of these plants and that salvia will “calm you down.” I’m not really into herbal tea, but what did spark my interest was that she has some fresh arugula, which is really hard to find. I told her this is what I would like to buy, which cost me 2.50 leva for 100 grams, which is a deal because I pay between 3 and 4 in Sofia.  Also, this arugula had a much stronger flavor.

A rickety old bridge.

Around 11:00, we finally said goodbye, and Ms. Dimitrova told us how to get to the gorge. The entire area is encircled by the Trun ecotrail, starting on the main road next to Ms. Dimitrova’s house where there is a bridge and a dirt road bearing to the right. Information and maps can be found at the ethnographic museum in Trun, or at the large hotel off of the main square. There are also maps and information at the Hizha Erma, on the road halfway between Trun and the gorge, where the stamp for our books was located and a room runs about 10 leva a night. The Trun ecotrail is 11 kilometers in a circle, hitting Monastery of Michael the Archangel, the gorge itself, Village Petachintsi, Village Trunska Bankya, the smaller Trunska Bankya Gorge, and back to the monastery. There are lots of well-marked signs, and on the weekends there will be lots of other people around. We didn’t opt to hike the entire 11 kilometers; instead we did a two kilometer loop and sat and ate sandwiches.

If you’re going to make sandwiches, I recommend buying the mediterranean ciabatta from the Dutch Bakery

Hizha Erma.

(JoVan) at the corner of Angel Kunchev and Han Aspirouh in downtown Sofia, and fill it with roasted peppers, cream cheese, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes. The bakery also happens to be across from Zona Urbana, which is a gift shop that makes bags, wallets, and other items from recycled materials.

Since there was no bus coming down the gorge road, we walked back to town from the large campground up river from the gorge, which took us about 30 minutes. If you’re in a pinch, hitch-hiking is an option, since most people are going between Trun and the gorge itself.

If coming for the day the entire loop would be hard to complete, so if that is what you’re interested in, contact the Erma Hizha at 0896 715 254 and make a reservation. Buses leave Sofia’s Avtogara Zapad for Trun at 8:00, 10:30, 15:00 and 19:00, and buses leave Trun for Sofia at 9:30 (but 8:00 on the weekends), 14:00, 16:40, and 18:40. We had planned to take the 16:40 bus, but actually made it back to town early, catching the 14:00. If you’re interested in a demonstration about herbs or herbs to purchase, you may contact Dr. Dimitrova at 02/8748179, or 07/7313023.

During the socialist period, this was the trade home in Trun, offering a restaurant, cafe, and offices to pay municipal services. Like most things, commerce was also centralized into one place.

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Updates and Changes…Tram #10, Metro Blue Line, and Others…

In 1981, Bulgaria celebrated 1300 years since the founding of their country with this hideous monument that, in 30 years has crumbled to a steel skeleton. People have never really been able to get close due to pieces falling off and crashing onto the ground, and as of this week, the city has started to dismantle it.

It’s exciting to think that in less than two weeks, on August 31st, the blue line of the Sofia Metro will open,

A message stating route changes on tram #10. Expect more of these after the subway opens.

running from Obelya to Lozenets at James Boucher Blvd. This means that the construction altering many of the city’s transit lines will come to an end, and new lines will pop up using the metrostations as terminal points. This means that some of the information in my blog will be rendered obsolete, and for this I apologize. Progress is good however, and the Sofia Metro is set to alleviate traffic and dependence on old buses that run on fossil fuels, helping to clear up the city’s thick smog. Already the route for Tram line #10 has been restored, not stopping at Korab Planina, but continuing down Cherni Vruh Boulevard and turning around at the Hladilnika bus terminal, which is convenient for people in the center to get to 1) the U.S. Embassy, 2) buses to mount Vitosha, and 3) the Hotel Kempinski. The #9 tram still continues to run as a bus, and I haven’t seen any messages concerning its future.

I also have some unfortunate news: I will be leaving Bulgaria and stop posting on August 26th, as I will be returning to the United States. I will however, try to track major changes as well as I can and post updates, but it will be hard to document Sofia without being here. I am very disappointed that I will be leaving 5 days before the blue line opens. I’m gong to try and document as much as I can before I leave, and as always, thank you for reading!

 

The new section of the Serdika Mtrostation. Passengers transferring red line to blue line will use a tunnel connecting the stations, and can travel on the same ticket.

 

The new James Bouchier Metrostation on Cherni Vruh Boulevard.

 

 

 

 

 

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“A Weekend in the Northwest”: Bulgarian State Railways No. 7622 – Sofia to Vidin

Buy your tickets from the agent, not the kitty cat.

Spending time in Sofia is wonderful – it is the gateway to the country for most visitors and with its nightlife

For a trip back in time…

variety it showcases what the west has brought to Bulgaria. But it is crowded, and busy, and after a few days  you’ll want to get out of town to let your lungs clear. There are umpteen millions of places to go in Bulgaria depending on what you want to do – from the seaside to mountains, and Thracian tombs to Roman ruins, yet chances are you’ll be directed away from the northwest.

Composed of three oblasts – Vratsa, Montana, and Vidin – northwestern Bulgaria has the unfortunate title of being the poorest region in the European Union. Low population density, brain drain, and lack of employment has given this part of Bulgaria the shaft, which unlike other parts of the country that have national parks, the seaside, or a major highway to fall back on, the northwest has seen the least investment or growth since the changes of socialism to free market. Not to say that there is nothing to see – Vidin was a former regional capital that absorbed quite a bit of Austrian sensibility due to its location on the Danube and sports Bulgaria’s most in-tact ancient castle. Nearby Belogradchik is quickly becoming a must-visit destination with its fortress walls built into a dramatic cluster of rock towers, and the entire border in this part of the region is lined with high peaks of the Balkan range untouched by hikers who can easily take a bus to Rila or Pirin.

Me as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the kids with whom I worked. My most successful project was creating Vidin’s youth baseball club.

My friend Mr. P and I decided to take the train up from Sofia for the weekend to Vidin to visit

You could always rent a car…

his family, and for me to see my former colleagues at the youth center where I had worked for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Roma neighborhood. From Sofia there are 7 buses a day, taking about 4 1/2 hours to Vidin, at a cost of 20 leva one way. On the other hand, Bulgarian State Railways runs three trains (7:35, 12:25, and 16:25) that take give or take 5 hours and cost 22 leva round trip. Both the buses and the trains all stop in the northwest’s other big cities of Vratsa and Montana. Among Bulgarians there is always the bus vs. train debate; generally bus tickets are more expensive because they supposedly take less time and have air-conditioning. Venerated Bulgaria veterans can attest that this isn’t always the case. Until the 1990’s, train travel was considered much classier than bus travel. However with privatization, the still state supported Bulgarian State Railways suffered under budget cuts while privatized bus companies purchasing second-hand buses from Western Europe simply outperformed. It seems that BDZ is always on the brink of collapse, owing millions of dollars in debt and

The Baba Vida Castle in Vidin.

operating at a loss, yet the government continues to support it lest leave a large portion of the population unable to afford the higher bus prices (pensioners, children, and students ride the train at reduced rates). Although stations and wagons in Bulgaria certainly need some TLC, they function. I personally prefer the train over the bus because I can 1) open the windows, 2) use the toilet, 3) and read, which makes me nauseous on bus rides. Another good reason to take the train is if you plan to cycle somewhere.  Bicycles can be stored in cargo for 2 leva, and it’s a great way to see some of the Bulgarian countryside, especially along the Black Sea Coast, which has beautiful wild beaches spaced between towns on a relatively even landscape.

We left Sofia on the 12:25 train, BDZ No. 7622, composed of an old Skoda engine and three

Across from Baba Vida is the Vidin Synagogue, which has been abandoned since the 1950’s when the town’s sizeable Jewish population emigrated to Israel.

wagons, although one car would detach in Brusartsi en route to Lom. This train was particularly full, and the ticket agent recommended that we buy seat reservations at a mere 50 stotinki charge, which would ensure us a reserved place to sit. Most Bulgarians don’t purchase these, but it’s always a good idea when going somewhere from Sofia, lest suffer a 4 hour trip on your feet standing next to the toilet.

One of Vidin’s city gates.

Once leaving Sofia, the Vidin trains head north and enter the Iskur River Gorge, a 150 kilometer canyon cutting through the Balkan mountain on its way to the Danube. Apart from being one of the most beautiful rail trips in the country, there are several stops convenient for a cheap day trip from Sofia, among them the Skaklya Waterfall at Gara Bov (about an hour from Sofia), just past Svoge (where they make the chocolate). Not all trains stop at Gara Bov, but apart from the Vidin trains, there are several other trains going to Varna and Turnovo that pass through the gorge. Noted as the fourth tallest waterfall in the country, Skaklya is about hour’s hike from Gara Bov. When exiting the train, continue north along the river for five minutes until the next bridge. Once across the river, go to the right and you’ll see a sign marking the Ivan Vazov Eco-trail (which runs east to west). Heading west (to the left), the trail shares its way with a paved road. At the end of the road are two small bed and breakfasts and a dirt trail. The trail continues another 40 minutes through the forest right to the base of the waterfall. You’ll probably see a shepherd or two, and if any doubt, just ask them to point

The pool at the hotel Anna Kristina with the mosque in the background.

towards the “vodopad.” The whole trip – an hour and a half up the mountain from the train station and an hour down – could be

Rock formations in the Belogradchik Fortress.

done by the late afternoon, which gives you time to return to Sofia by evening for dinner.

Past Gara Bov, the next interesting stop is Gara Lakatnik, a small village on the banks of the Iskar bumping up to the southern edge of the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park, and its sharp Lakatnik Rocks. Consisting of weathered limestone cliffs, the Rocks are popular with adventure tourists and rock climbers, sporting even a little “eagle’s nest,” a small red shack built into the cliff side.

The last interesting stop would be the Cherepishki Monastery, founded in the 1300’s, though the buildings date from a bit later due to being burned several times by Ottoman troops. The Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski found refuge here, and the site was a favorite spot of the poet Ivan Vazov. Guests can find sparse rooms for 10 leva a night, though men and women will probably been in separate ones unless married, and you’ll need to bring your own food. Technically there is a train station for the monastery, though I’ve yet to see a train ever stop. The easiest way to get there would be to exit the train at Zverino (before the monastery) or Lyutibrod (after the monastery) and walk along the riverside road to the complex. From Zverino, it’s about 4 kilometers, from Lyutibrod – 3 doubling back.

The Belogradchik Fortress.

After passing through the gorge, the train makes a stop in Mezdra, a sizeable switch town where Vidin trains continue to Vidin and other trains continue east. Here, the engine switches sides of the train, and you may have 15 minutes to smoke, buy a water, or do a sodoku puzzle. Past Mezdra, it’s 20 minutes to Vratsa, which is situated at the base of the low Vrachanski Balkan Mountain right where a small river has cut a canyon. The canyon also has a road which is the entrance to the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park. Apart from the park itself, Vratsa is rather ho-hum. As is the next big town, Montana, which is over-industrialized and had its name changed four times in 100 years.

Once past Montana, the train enters the far-off world of rolling hills and small villages until it comes to a

Mr. P, his mother, his sister, and I at Magura Cave. Before we were disappointed.

stop in Vidin. Our train arrived on-time at 17:40. One the largest of the northwest’s cities, Vidin has almost always marked the western border of Bulgaria and was far enough away from everything to be proclaimed an independent kingdom for a time in the 14th century. Originally inhabited by Celts, Romans built the first castle along the banks and named the town Bononia. Countless invasions of Slavs, Huns, Bulgarians, and Byzantines gave town the similarly fragmented history that most Balkan towns can claim. The still in-tact castle Baba Vida, perched on the banks of the Danube has a Roman foundation, Bulgarian Kingdom walls, and updates from the Ottomans who populated the city and made it a central western military outpost for the empire. They also constructed the numerous city walls, enclosing the castle into the center of the town. Several elaborate gates remain, once leading to the Kaleto (Turkish for fortress), which is how Vidin’s old town has been named. While all of this sounds enchanting, be prepared to encounter most places in Vidin with a need for sprucing up. The municipality recently was in danger of shutting down completely due to lack of funds, with traffic lights shut off and no electricity in the Obshtina Vidin skyscraper on the main square. As with most budgets, grounds keeping and remodeling projects are the first to go.

A sunflower field near Belogradchik.

One place that has seen a revival through all of this is the city’s lone surviving mosque, not destroyed due to it’s historical connection with Osman Pazvantoglu, the notorious fierce Ottoman general who terrorized Wallachia from his base in Vidin and ruled his region semi-independently from the empire. Built in 1801, the minaret is topped by a heart rather than a crescent, supposedly in support of union between him and his Bulgarian Christian wife, but this is just something  I’ve been told by people from Vidin and I can’t verify it as fact. What I can say is that after a long dormancy period, the mosque is up and working again and open to visitors who are curious about the building. When I went, a nice man let us look around and told us a bit about Islam.

Near to the mosque are also two medieval Orthodox churches which are half-underground due to

The Balkan Mountain in this part of Bulgaria gets almost no nature enthusiasts.

Christianity taking a backseat to Islam during the Ottoman rule. One is behind the large “new” Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nikolai built in the 1920’s, and the other is tucked away behind an apartment building in a courtyard. The one next to St. Nikolai is open to visitors occasionally (if the church lady feels like opening it for you), but the other I have never been inside; like a lot of the town there just isn’t anyone to keep it up. The same can be said about Osman Pazvantoglu’s grave located near the municipality on a side street, which is covered in plants and next to a gaping hole where part of an old building collapsed because of faulty planning on a building next door. Three years later, no one has cleaned up the mess and it stands as a hazard.

A sign marking the Ivan Vazov Eco-Trail. Take a left here at the sign and go up the hill along the road. You won’t get lost, you’ll see some shepherds.

There is no hostel in Vidin, but there are a few hotels (Anna Kristina, Star Grad, Hotel Vidin, Neptun, Bononia) which are decent. As of recently the city has become a transit point for people entering Romania on their way to Sibiu and Timisoara, which from Sofia is a much shorter trip than with the train to the first Danube bridge in Ruse and via Bucharest. In Vidin there is a ferryboat serving cars, bicycles, and pedestrians that works 24 hours non-stop, but only travels when the ferry is full. During the day it averages about every hour or so, and tickets for pedestrians are right at six leva. From here you’ll get to Calafat, a sleepy

The lower cataract of the Skaklya Waterfall.

little town that has frequent connections to Craiova and onward north. From the train station in Vidin, it’s necessary to take a taxi to the ferryboat terminal, which is a flat rate of 5 or 6 leva. Due to a lack of buses, all the taxis in Vidin operate on a flat rate fare, dividing the city into zones. Most of Vidin costs 2.50 leva, with outlying areas more. In a few months the Vidin-Calafat bridge will open, running international trains and open to automobile traffic. This, for years, has been seen as Vidin’s last hope at survival to bring economic development; lots of money has been spent on rail upgrades, road infrastructure, a new international train station and hotels with hopes to make Vidin once again the country’s most important and west-looking river town.

The Izvorski Monastery in the village of Izvor, near Dimovo. Very out of the way, even going by car is difficult since the road is so bad. If you get there, you can sleep in a room for around 10 lev a night.

In the Vidin oblast there are two other important Bulgarian sites that I happened to visit. The Magura Cave, located outside of the village of Rabisha, contains cave paintings from the Neolithic era made from bat poop. The drawings are simple, though the depictions of giant genitalia are unmistakable. I’ve been several times, though this past weekend when I went the drawings weren’t on display due to excavations by archaeologists. Mr. P’s mother, who had never been to the cave, was also disappointed. There was plenty more disappointment to go around as well – the entrance fee had risen from 3 to 5 leva per person, and there was an additional tax of 10 leva for the mandatory guide, which was divided among the people on the tour. I paid 60 stotinki, yet if you’re the only person on the tour, expect to pay the entire 10 leva. Once we entered the cave and guide told us we weren’t going to be visiting the cave drawings or the wine cellar, I felt cheated. Not friendly in any sense, our guide seemed bored to be giving the tour and tried to make dry witty jokes, yet he just sounded mean. Especially when trying to explain things to an English

This empty field is where Ratsiaria stood. Looters come every so often to look for artifacts.

couple on the tour. “Bear! Cave bear!” he yelled at them. Luckily I was able to do some translating. The cave tour is about a kilometer in length and geologically very pretty. Coming from Kentucky, with the largest cave system in the world, I can say this is a good one. The tour doesn’t loop around, and so visitors exit from a different opening looking over the Rabisha Lake, Bulgaria’s largest natural lake and a protected site. Imagine our surprise when the guide told us it was a two kilometer walk back to the main entrance, yet there was a motor train that would take us for 2 leva per person, something he had failed to mention before entering the cave. Of all the places I’ve been to, I must say that Magura Cave has the most ponzi-scheme setup I have ever experienced. The cave gets an A for interesting, but an F in service.

In the village of Archar, where we stopped to buy Baba Kolka some homemade millet ale. These two little boys were very excited to have their picture taken.

If you would like to visit Magura cave, it’s best to have a car. Luckily we had Mr. P’s sister’s. There are buses that run to Rabisha village from Vidin, though you must inquire at the Vidin bus station when they come. From Rabisha village, it’s about a 25 minute walk to the cave, or three kilometers.

The better and easier place to visit is the Belogradchik fortress, which has a direct bus from Sofia daily (at 16:30) and costs 16 leva one way. You can also take one of two or three buses from Vidin, which once again will have to be asked about at the Vidin bus station (they exist, but I just can’t find any time listings). The final and cheapest option is to take the  Vidin train to Gara Oreshets, just before Dimovo, and take the minibus from the train station to the center of Belogradchik (which is just over a hill). There is a minibus usually for every train, and if not, taxis will be waiting for a flat fee of 5 or 6 leva.

The Kaleto (like in Vidin) was originally built by Romans, rebuilt by the Bulgarian Kingdoms,

Baba Kolka and one of her chickens.

and updated by the Ottomans. What’s exciting about this fortress is that the Romans built it high up into some dramatic rock formations that give the effect of candles on a birthday cake. The walls and stairs were stone, but most of the buildings in the fortress were wooden. Some have been reconstructed for visitors. At the top of the fortress, visitors can climb and explore the rock formations, though be aware that you’re climbing at your own risk, there are no fences, and in places you can expect a 200 meter drop. But all of this danger makes it all the more exciting. Below the fortress is the town which is small and provincial and

The Durzhanitsa Village spring next to the river.

hasn’t yet been overtaken by mass tourism. The remoteness of the city also protects it. Around the fortress is a nature reserve that is worth exploring and has several eco-trails. Maps can be found at the tourist information center in the town square across from the police. There is one large hotel in Belogradchik, and lots of  smaller guesthouses (look at this site).

Since we had a car, we also took this time to visit Mr. P’s grandmother, Baba Kolka, in his ancestral village of Durzhanitsa, tucked away in a river valley about 8 kilometers from the town of Archar, site of the old Roman settlement of Ratsiaria, which longer is standing. Durzhanitsa was probably settled due to its proximity to the fortress. Baba Kolka found some old Roman coins while digging in her garden, which is way cooler than finding potato bugs or worms. We had lunch, and then we watered the tomato plants, and then returned to Vidin.

If you have time, Vidin would love to have you visit. Open fields, small villages, and Roman antiquity are

The shepherd in Durzhanitsa, taking the village’s goats to the river.

their specialty, and you get the chance to meet lots of Bulgarians who are still coming to terms with the country’s transition 20 years ago. This is a part of Bulgaria that is still, more so than others, frozen in time. If you would like more information, please let me know – email me at patrickerdley@otherplacespublishing.com. Thanks for reading!

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What You Want to Know About the Black Sea…

Skaliite, a wild beach near Ravda.

It’s been a while since my my last post – I’ve been on vacation at the Black Sea. I thought about

Camping with my friends!

doing a post about local buses on the coast, but I reminded myself that I was on vacation and not supposed to do any work. Then I returned to Sofia, and thought a broader expose about going to the Black Sea would be helpful for visitors. So here we go.

If coming from Sofia, getting to the Black Sea (Cherno Moree) is very easy. From the Central Bus Station in Sofia, there are buses that leave throughout the day, and several overnight buses that leave around midnight. Also, there is an overnight train, and express trains that depart from the Central Train Station. A one-way ticket on the train is between 25-30 Bulgarian Leva, but be warned that the trains aren’t air-conditioned. The bus usually IS air-conditioned, but there will be only one or two stops to use the toilet. Bus tickets can range anywhere from 30-50 Bulgarian Leva depending on the destination. Buses take around 6 hours to get to Burgas, and 7 to Varna, whereas the train takes 7 hours to get to Burgas and almost 8 to get to Varna, yet the Sofia – Varna rail line really showcases the best of the Bulgarian countryside.

Igloos in the Lozana Campground north of Pomorie.

The next question is “Where should I go?” That generally depends on who you are. During the 60’s and 70’s,

Ms. T and I in a mud bath near Pomorie. The mud flat is a lake in the winter, and then in the summer the clay is taken to spa centers nearby. You can just go for free in the lake, however.

the socialist state tourist agency created several large scale resorts, among them Sunny Beach, Golden Sands, Albena, and St. Konstantin, which still draw large Bulgarian and international crowds. Sunny Beach and Golden Sands have reputations as “party towns,” filled with 20-somethings and visited by famous Bulgarian performers from crooners to chalga stars. Most of these resorts are north of Burgas and around Varna, with the resort areas creeping up north to Kavarna, which hosts an annual hard rock music festival. If looking to go to a resort area, hotels are numerous and vary greatly in price. If you’re looking for a luxury apartment of the beach, the best bet is to look on google maps at an area in which you would like to stay and then contact the hotel directly. Groupon-like sites such as GRABO, KOLEKTIVA, and HITRO all have package deals for places on the Black Sea if you’re not too picky about where to go, albeit the sites are in Bulgarian. The way I like to go is to pick a place and just to show up looking for signs that say “free rooms (svobodni staii)” or look for an older person at the bus station. Owning an apartment in a sea town is a pensioner’s gold mine, as frequent guests can supplement their often meager state social security. Depending on the place, prices can be as little as 10 leva a night per person up to hotel prices for a private remodeled room with TV and air-conditioning. In any sense, staying in someone’s home can be great because sometimes they’ll cook for you and do your laundry, and you have the satisfaction that your money is going into the pockets of the community, and not some Sofia real estate king. If you are interested, you should see the room before

The pretty Burgas Train Station.

agreeing to pay and it’s okay to decline and keep searching. If you’re planning on a longer stay, you can probably negotiate a lower price. Last August my friend and I did just that in Ohrid, Macedonia, and managed to get a private room with a balcony just off the main pedestrian street for seven leva a night per person. Last week I was in Ravda, Pomorie, and Nessebur, and in all three places, there were no shortage of rooms for rent.

The third option and my most preferred is to go “camping.” Apart from the large resorts,

The approach to Nessebur.

campgrounds were the other destinations for Bulgarians until private hotels were built everywhere from the 1990’s onward. A large majority of the campgrounds were built by state owned companies (i.e., the Kozlodui Power Plant has a bungalow campground for its employees in Pomorie) as rest stations for their workers, who would spend an entire month with their families and colleagues. Many of these places still exist (especially for government workers) but now allow private parties to stay in the campgrounds, albeit at a higher cost. Other public campgrounds are dotted along the coast, usually with bungalows (one room cabins that sometimes have a toilet and shower, sometimes cable t.v., and sometimes a refrigerator) that are one price per person (I paid 12 leva a night for the campground where I stayed) and a lower price for those that would like to pitch a tent in a designated spot. All of the campgrounds have public toilets and showers, and the larger ones would have a cafe, restaurant, or even a small store. Some of the more famous campgrounds are around Sozopol, Kiten, and Lozenets, south of Burgas, “Delfin” near Ahtopol, “Silistar” near Sinemorets in the Strandzha Nature Park, “Rai” near where the Kamchiya River meets the sea, and “Dobruzhda” near Shabla in the north.  I like the campgrounds because these beaches tend to be emptier, farther away from large towns, and the sea water is cleaner.

I had to search high and low for that Bulgarian Speedo.

For history buffs, there are several enchanting sea towns; Balchik in the north is famous for its sea gardens and palace which was used as a summer retreat for Queen Marie of Romania. At one time the entire Black Sea coast in Bulgaria was settled by Greeks, who founded towns like Nessebur (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sozopol, Burgas, and Pomorie, though Pomorie and Burgas have lost much of their ancient appeal and are now just Bulgarian sea towns. Nessebur used to be one of Bulgaria’s best keep secrets, but every year there are more visitors and higher prices. Much like Venice, it seems to exist for tourists, with local people being pushed to the mainland. Pomorie has almost no old stuff, and is nice because it is a functioning Bulgarian community. But you’re on vacation – so go anyway.
Finally, I would like to mention that despite the unfortunate event of the Burgas Bus Bombing on

I get to be the Professor!

July 18th, Bulgaria is still a very safe destination for international travelers. It’s a pity that the paranoia of the “War on Terror” has reached my Bulgaria, and already extra police are visible at transit points all over Sofia. My experiences going through Bulgarian customs and dealing with border police have shown me that the authorities are paying attention – whenever I come back from the U.S. I always get a list of questions and they do check my documents. However, as an American and witnessing the 9/11 attacks that shattered the U.S.’s sense of invincibility, you come to a realization that these events will happen and will continue to happen. Living your life in constant fear is no way to live. I’m sure older Bulgarians who have experienced so much change and uncertainty can identify with that.

Come to the Black Sea. They are waiting for you to show up.

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An O.K. Taxi: Ruski Pametnik to Bitaka

Getting in the taxi.

After weeks of trying to get up early and go, my friend Ms. R and I finally managed to wake up

Arriving at bitaka. If nothing else, just remember “the taxi with the red dots are O.K….”

at the crack of dawn in order to go to bitaka – the flea market in Malashevtsi. “Bitaka is epic,” in the fact that if there is something that you would like to buy, it can be found here. Old clothes, memorabilia from the 60’s and 70’s, post cards, old photos, kitchen ware, bric-a-brac, artwork, and furniture. It’s a very come as you are kind of place – many of the merchants are the scavengers you see during the week digging for treasures in the garbage containers. In America, we refer to this as “dumpster diving,” and I can attest that most of my furniture has been fix-me-ups I found in my neighbors’ front yards on big trash collection day (scheduled every three months). One place that connects people’s old stuff with new owners is freecycle, a service that is committed to keeping refuse out of landfills. In Bulgaria, a similar site is www.podariavam.com, but you need to act fast since good items go quickly.

On this day, I needed to go to bitaka to find some souvenirs for my friends in the U.S., and Ms. R wanted to sell some donated items. Among many things, Ms. R deals with waste. A researcher from the University of Michigan, her purpose for being in Bulgaria is to understand how waste affects our world, and furthermore how waste is treated in Bulgarian society as compared to in the United States. She’s the American that is following scavengers around Sofia, digging through the dumpsters by day, and attending cocktail parties by night with Sofia’s elite. She really is a brazen and ingenious person, who isn’t afraid to tackle an issue that we would rather throw away. Our

Most people came by just to see if we were the Americans everyone was talking about.

trash makes an impact on the environment, and as she can tell you, our trash is giving a whole faction of society a way to make money. One of her recent projects was “Slivi za Smet (Plums for Trash),” an international item exchange titled after the Bulgarian folk tale by Ran Bosilek about a man who sold plums in exchange for garbage in search of a wife for his son.

Because we had so many items, we needed to take a taxi rather than the bus (see post), which gave me an opportunity to touch on a kind of transport people use in Sofia quite frequently: taxis.

Chances are, if you’ve had a bad experience in Bulgaria, it’s been in a taxi cab. Although the

Ms. R doing research. (As a side note, all money collected goes to a charity as a donation…)

drivers have been more tame in recent years, they will still take advantage of a tourist who 1. can’t speak Bulgarian, 2. don’t know the fare rates, and 3. have no idea where they’re are going. I’ve been in Bulgaria six years, I speak fluent Bulgarian, and occasionally I’ll get a driver who tries to push it. So what are you to do? This is my advice: If coming to Sofia by plane, feel free to take a taxi. But rather than just flag one down outside, order one from the O.K. Taxi info desk which is represented in both of the terminals, have an address to give them, and ask them to run the meter. To most destinations in the city center, the fare will be 8-15 leva, and to distant suburbs, as much as 20. If you would like to negotiate a flat fee, feel free to do so, but expect some outrageous offers. For example, a meter charge during the day will be 59 stotinki during the day and 70 sto. at night per kilometer, with 18 sto. per idle minute. Other reputable companies beside O.K. Suptertrans are Radio CV, Yellow, and Edno Evro. In Sofia, it is normal to hail cabs from the street if they have a green light showing, but I tend to call from a number programed into my cell phone. When I do call, my address pops up on their computer screen which makes things less complicated concerning my accent.

To be forewarned, there are a few “premium” cabs that lurk around downtown and are traps – usually the ones parked at busy intersections. These are the cabs that look like reputable companies (i.e., instead of O.K. Supertrans, they use the same logo, but written as C.K. Superfast), and charge anywhere from 1-4 leva per kilometer. My colleague and I made the mistake of taking one of these cabs last year on the way to our school’s Christmas banquet. After four kilometers, I saw the fare was 15 leva, and my colleague started yelling. “Oh, we need to get out of the cab now,” she said. “This man is trying to rip us off!” At the next stoplight she got out, and then I did, and then the driver. He told me that we needed to pay, and I told him that I would give him 5 leva, which was more than the fair amount. He told me that he would call the police, and I told him “to go ahead and do that, because they won’t come for an hour anyway and when they get here, they won’t want to deal with the paperwork for my passport.” I asked him again to just take the 5 leva, which he did and promptly spit in my face. He then got in his taxi, squealed his tires, and drove off.

On the way to bitaka however, we flagged down a regular O.K. Taxi, at 8:36 a.m. at the corner of Laius Koshut and Skobelev near Ruski Pametnik. The driver, Nikolai, was really polite and helped us with our baggage. He had a heavy foot, but I like that because it makes my day seem more urgent and exciting. We arrived at bitaka at 8:48, a distance of maybe five kilometers, and a total fare of 4.94 BGN.

Once at bitaka, we set up our blanket between several really nice vendors, who were very confused at why two Americans had shown up.

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Sofia Pride Parade – The Monument to the Soviet Army and Back

Get in step with the times and meet here on Saturday, June 30th, to support rights for gays and lesbians in Bulgaria!

Although marching in a parade isn’t a form of public transit, it is a way to get from one place to another, and if you’re visiting Sofia this Saturday, June 30th, why not come out and support a group of brave Bulgarians who are boldly defying cultural stigmas in their country by marching in support for gay rights? The parade will begin at 16:30 at the Monument to the Soviet Army in Borisova Gradina, just next to the Sofia University Metro Station in downtown Sofia. In the past, parade routes have included parts of Vasil Levski Boulevard, though the exact parade route hasn’t been announced on the parade website, which can be found here. Unfortunately there has been some negative press from the Orthodox Church, though I generally find that most Bulgarians are live-and-let-live kind of people, not bothered by different lifestyles and ranging from having an optimistic Western attitude to just general apathy. Either way, I would be surprised if the parade turned violent. Just in case, as in years past, marchers can wear a hard hat.

I wish all of my gay and lesbian friends support and success, and here’s to the 2012 Sofia Pride Parade!

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The Free Sofia Tour – Sudebna Palata to Narodno Subranie

The tour meeting place, at the Palace of Justice.

Now I realize that a walking tour doesn’t count as public transit in the way that buses and subways do, but using your feet is a way to get somewhere. In fact, it is the oldest form of getting somewhere, and if you’re going to be walking around Sofia, why not take the chance to learn some of its more important history under the guise of a couple of locals.

The Sofia Free Tour, similar to projects in a cities all over the world, was started in 2010 and has since led

Vanya, our tour guide.

around 15,000 visitors through the streets of the capitol. The tour route hits most of Sofia’s major sites, beginning at the Palace of Justice (on the corner of Boulevard Vitosha and Alabin Street under the Lion statue), and ending at the Parliament building about 2 hours later.

Although I’ve known about the tour for awhile, it wasn’t until I was featured on “Gradut i Nie” (see post) on Bulgarian National Television with tour co-founder Vanya Nikova that I decided to visit.

The tour is given twice daily, rain or shine, at 11:00 and 18:00. Different guides volunteer for different days, and each of them bring a certain personality to the tour. I went on a Wednesday morning, and Vanya and her colleague Boyko were both waiting, expecting a large amount of tourists that they would need to split up into two groups.

“I don’t like to have groups of more than 20 people. It’s hard for me, and its hard for them,” he told me. I was chosen to walk with Vanya’s group.

Look what we walked by on the tour! So much old Roman stuff!

By 11:05, there were about 30 people waiting for the tour, visiting from places such as Seattle, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, and I’m sure other places, as I didn’t have a chance to talk to everyone. Of course, the people I did talk to received my business card (a little shameless promotion never hurts…).

The first point of interest is the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral (Holy Sunday) which was blown up by communist

The oldest building in Sofia, the 4th century Rotunda.

terrorists in 1925, trying to murder the king of Bulgaria.

“Do you want to know why the weren’t successful? Because he was late. It’s a Bulgarian trend to be a bit late for meetings…”

After this the tour passed the Sheraton complex, the Sveta Petka Samardjiiska Church, the Mosque, the city bath house, and on to the president’s office. Vanya was very good about keeping us in the shade. The tour proceeds to the Rotunda, the Archaeological Museum and former Sofia Central Mosque, the City Garden, the Palace (where the silversmith who was also featured in “Gradut i Nie” has his shop), and the Ivan Vazov Theater.

It was after this, and in front of the Russian Church that the group was yelled at by a colorful street character who let us know that “Russia will crush you stupid fucking Americans, you chicken shit Americans…Russia forever, fucking Americans….” and etc.. Vanya simply smiled at the group and stated that “not everyone here in Sofia feels that way.”

At the Sveta Sofia Church, Vanya told us about the bell in the tree in front of the church that was placed there at the time of the liberation of Bulgaria to alert people of its independence. This was something that I’ve walked by hundreds of times but never seen.

It’s a tour tradition to take a group photo in front of the National Theater. My picture came out blurry, but I guess that’s okay if you don’t want your face on my blog.

The tour passed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which although I think is pretty, is not my favorite church. I really like Sveta Sofia and Sveti Sedmochislenitsi on Graf Ignatiev. After that the tour stopped by Sofia University and ended in front of the Parliament Building, where a protest against protesting against the Foresty Act was just wrapping up. Altogether, from start to finish, this tour took about two hours. I was surprised how thorough the tour was – Vanya really knows her Sofia history. Even more delightful were some of the old pictures of Sofia she had in purse from the Stara Sofia Blog (click here or over on the right), and it was a relief that the history section I wrote about Sofia in my guidebook seems to be correct.

If you go, I recommend taking something drink, and a snack.

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An Interview with Me on TV!

On the tram talking about this blog.

In April, I was asked by the show “Ние и Градът” (Us and the City), which airs on Bulgarian National Television, to do an interview with them about my favorite places in Sofia. It recently aired on June 3rd. The interview is in Bulgarian, and I’m surprised that they didn’t add subtitles, but all around I’m glad that I got to show the rest of Sofia what I like about the city.

Here is the clip. I hope you in enjoy!

INTERVIEW – NIE I GRADUT – JUNE 3RD

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Bulgarian State Railways Train No. 13295 – Sofia Central Train Station to Bankya

Information about the Sofia-Bankya train.

I was having coffee with my friend Ms. V a couple of weeks ago and she asked me if I was going to write about other forms of public transit apart from those provided by the Sofia Center for Urban Mobility, and I told her that while I would have nothing against that in terms of the theme of my blog, but the opportunity just hadn’t arisen – until I read in the newspaper that until the 3rd of June, Bulgarian State Railways would be running an antique steam locomotive twice a day between Sofia and Bankya (apart from its other trains), an affluent suburban town famous for its mineral water.

Although it’s been losing money for years and recently went through an ugly downsizing, Bulgarian State

The Sofia Central Train Station Lobby.

Railways  provides essential rail service reaching all of the major towns in Bulgaria in some form or another. From Sofia, there is a northern line that passes through the beautiful Iskar River Gorge, splitting in Vratsa with one major half leading to Vidin and the other to Varna, with spurs leading to Veliko Turnavo and Ruse. As of now, all trains heading to Romania pass through Ruse, but this will change later this year once the Vidin-Calafat Bridge across the Danube will be finished. There are two eastern lines, the upper one leading to Burgas skirting the southern side of the Stara Planina (Balkan Mountains), and the lower one going to Plovdiv and later Turkey. There is a southwestern line ending in Kyustendil – alas, there is no train Skopje – and the southern line goes to Blagoevgrad and through the Struma River Valley onward to Thessaloniki. It used to be that train fare was

A steam locomotive!

cheaper than the inter-city highway buses, but price hikes have put them almost equal, but with the train talking longer (the ticket to Bankya however was just 2.50 BGN, which is cheap since BDZ prices tickets according to distance traveled). However, by sacrificing time, travelers have freedom of movement, pretty scenery, and access to a toilet. Also, people tend not to get

This says: Swiss Company for the Fabrication of Locomotives and Engines, 1935.

motion sickness on trains as they do on buses (good for me.) Riding the train also gives you a chance to talk to colorful locals, like four summers ago when an older lady sitting across from me in the compartment offered me a hunk of homemade sheep’s milk cheese with her giant farmer hands. I accepted of course, because homemade cheese is just so hard to come by in Sofia unless you wake up really early on a Sunday and find a similar older lady selling her products at a bus stop, which is what I exactly plan to do tomorrow.

It’s my love of train travel that really made me excited for the steam locomotive. I arrived at the enormous and extremely socialist looking Sofia Central Train Station, which has seen better days. I’ve seen old photographs of the waiting room when it was bustling with dressed up

On our way!

travelers excited to see Sofia, a real treat for provincial residents, but these days most bustling comes from the pigeons that roost on the giant metal mural set against a constant high pitched beeping intended to keep them out. The windows are dirty and I noticed that they’ve replaced the wooden benches with metal ones. I walked up to one of the windows and asked for a one way ticket to Bankya on the antique train.  Like most Bulgarian women behind glass windows, this one seemed less than thrilled that she actually had to talk to me. Because the train was a special

Bits of coal dust that came in through the window and landed on my hat.

attraction, she needed to hand-write my ticket, the entire time complaining to the other woman at the next window: “oh! All this writing is going to make my hand fall off,” which I can imagine she lets every customer know who purchases a hand-written ticket. I saw three carbon copies on the pad above mine, which making me her fourth ticket of the day lets me know she must not be much of a writer.

I sat around in the waiting area eating some pretzels and drinking a Schweppes until my train left at 15:10. The locomotive was resting on track I and had quite a few people standing around and taking pictures. The train was a green and black coal-fed steam locomotive that had a plaque dating it to 1935 and the name “Sofia” stamped onto it’s side. I had hoped that the

The Bankya Train Station.

carriages for passengers were also antique, but they were the regular graffiti covered BDZ wagons. I was surprised to be seated in first class, which is like second class but with more arm room, next to some bored looking teenage girls, a woman I presumed was their mother, and a balding man who seemed very intent on making them sit next to an open window. I was next to a closed window, so once the train left the station I moved to first class which was empty except for a man and his young son and a man about my age with tacky white sunglasses and too much gel in his hair. I perched by an open window and started taking pictures.

The train ride is short, about 25 minutes with no stops, but the train passes through a variety of landscapes; upon leaving the station passengers can see industrial buildings and the hot water factory to the north, soon to be followed by a Roma ghetto on the southern side. The man with son made sure to point out the suburb of Nadezhda, a site not to be missed, and about here I noticed that coal dust was falling into the wagon, telling me train travel in the past was either really dusty or no one opened any windows. Once past the falling-apart Obelya Station, the train entered pasture field off-set by high rises in the distance. For those of

A better shot of the locomotive.

us that don’t live here, Sofia is situated on a high-altitude plain completely ringed by mountains on all sides, with four or five major passes letting traffic in and out. Just to the south is the 7,513 feet (2290 meters) high Mt. Vitosha, the massif providing the dramatic back-drop to the city, but also helping hold in the incredible amount of air pollution from old cars and heating by coal.

We arrived in Bankya at 15:35 to a crowd of people waiting with cameras and camcorders. I exited the train and walked to what I assumed was the center of the town. Bankya was once one of the most celebrated getaways for Sofians due to its small town feel and large fancy bath house. Even today the town is green and has mainly houses, but is adding a large number of

If you live here, you’ll be Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s neighbor.

hotels claiming mineral baths. I stopped and asked an ice cream vendor if the beautiful abandoned building across the street was the bath house, and without looking at me answered “no.” I then asked if it was a school. “No.” Well then what is it? “A hospital.” Oh. Sometimes when lost I find asking random strangers directions is pointless. I surprisingly often know more than they do. After talking to him I saw a map of the city and located the bath house for myself.

The municipal bath house in Bankya was built in the early 1900’s and once contained several indoor baths and two large outdoor baths. Its situation in the town park makes it not only a showpiece, but a popular gathering place. There are several areas to collect water from the thermal springs, and I filled my empty Schweppes bottle for the trip home. Although I knew it

The Bankya Bath House from the front.

was the bath house, I asked some older ladies on a bench about the building. I find that babas on a bench are usually a great source of information as long as they’re dressed tidy. These very polite ladies who had been talking about “how useful a backpack like his would be…” before I approached them told me that the baths were municipality owned and worked really up until 10-15 years ago. “We don’t know what they’re going to do with it now, but it looks like they’re going to restore them.” There was a workman’s tape around the building and a metal fence showing that somebody was around to do something, but the trees growing on the roof and the broken windows told me that they hadn’t gotten very far. By any means, a restoration of the bath house would now exclude the former outer baths,

The Bankya Bath House from the back.

which according to a sign posted by a new building will be a part of a new hotel and spa and living complex.  I’m glad that there seems to be progress, but I must say that the restoration of the Sofia Municipal Bath House behind the mosque into an art gallery was quite a let down. Whereas I’m glad that they’ve decided to keep a historic building from rot, as a tourist I tend to be drawn to swimming in mineral water over looking at pictures.

Instead of taking the train back, I decided to take the #42 bus, which goes from the Bankya Bus Station to the Slivnitsa Metro Station (see the next post), however I didn’t know where the bus station was. I saw an old toothless man sitting on a bench mumbling to himself, and I decided to take a chance. “Excuse me, do you know the way to the Bankya Bus Station?” I asked. “Well, where do you want to go?” This was frustrating because like always, this was answering my question with a question, which I hate. “Sofia.” “Where do you want to go?” he asked again. “The bus station! I want to go to the bus station!!” I paused for a moment. I then thanked him for his information and set out on my own.

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